TOPEKA, Kan. — Several Kansas Supreme Court justices said Tuesday that the state has broken its funding promises to public schools, as an attorney for the state defended its budget decisions in a hearing over whether education spending must increase.
At issue is whether the Supreme Court will uphold a lower-court ruling issued in January ordering the state to increase school funding by at least $440 million a year. The justices are considering a lawsuit filed in 2010 by attorneys for students and several school districts, including Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita.
They argue the state has failed to comply with a 2006 Supreme Court order to increase funding, violating a provision of the Kansas Constitution requiring the Legislature to make "suitable provision" for financing public schools. The court has said in previous orders that the state is required to provide schools with enough money to give every child with a suitable education.
State Solicitor General Stephen McAllister argued that the constitution is not "a bankruptcy pact," and that legislators did the best they could to fund schools during and after the Great Recession. But Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson said the court ended a previous lawsuit based on promises that funding would increase.
"It stands before me, in my eyes, as a broken promise," Rosen told McAllister. "If that promise had not been kept, we would not be here."
When McAllister told the justices that legislators had to react to economic realities when making budget decisions, Johnson told him, "This is different."
In ruling against the state early this year, a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court noted that as the state's economy improved, the Republican-controlled Legislature approved massive personal income tax cuts. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback pushed for those tax reductions to stimulate the economy, but critics have said they'll starve state government of funds.
Justice Dan Biles, who represented the State Board of Education before his appointment to the court, said legislators have described education as the state's top priority.
"Why don't we just hold the Legislature to what they said?" Biles said.
A Supreme Court decision is anticipated by early January 2014. The court is hearing its second round of litigation in less than a decade, with the 2010 lawsuit following up on one filed in 1999.
A state law enacted in 2006 set the state's base funding for public schools at $4,492 per student, but the current base state funding is $3,838 per student, or nearly 15 percent less. However, Kansas allocated about $3 billion for public schools this fiscal year.
McAllister argued that the Supreme Court would be overstepping its constitutional authority to step in again and tell lawmakers how much must be spent on public schools. And, he argued, such increases in funding are sustainable.
"The Legislature has to deal with the real world," McAllister said. "The constitution shouldn't be a suicide pact."
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